Thursday, December 27, 2012

Writing – Art or Craft?

Writing – Art or Craft?
by Hugh Ashton
I have lived in Japan for the past 21 years, coming from the UK, where I had worked in the IT industry in support and technical writing. Originally, I came over to write manuals for musical instruments and audio equipment, working for a Japanese subcontractor specializing in documentation. For the past 12 years or so I have been working on a freelance basis, providing writing and editing services to companies and individuals (mostly in Japan) who need polished professional English.

This has taught me to regard quality writing as a craft, not an art. In the same way that a cabinetmaker will take pride in turning an exquisite chair leg on a lathe, but would never regard himself as an artist. I aim to produce well-turned sentences that do not come under the heading of artistry, but serve a definite purpose: to communicate meaning clearly and simply while retaining a certain elegance.

This applies to almost all aspects of my work whether I am writing a user manual for a piece of electronic equipment, a speech to be delivered at a conference, a magazine article, or presentation slides for a sales promotion.

This is not to say that emotions and feelings are absent from the writing I produce­ there is room for the human touch even in technical manuals­, but the primary aim of most of my writing is to communicate facts and ideas, not feelings and emotions.

One aspect of the writing craft, probably unique to those living in foreign countries, is the concept of “rewriting.” Japanese teaching of English is typically poor (there is usually no problem with Japanese people learning English, despite their protests), and there is a need for rewriting by “native speakers” (the phrase is used a lot here) of concepts expressed by Japanese writers in English.

Sometimes mistakenly referred to as “proofreading” by the Japanese client, such work can involve the complete destruction and reassembly of the text, referring to the original Japanese on which the English was based. Sometimes, on reading the English version of a speech or presentation, I find that the order of thoughts and ideas follows a Japanese pattern, which would be unacceptable to an English audience. In these cases, I recast the whole piece, explaining carefully to the client that I am not producing a translation, and sometimes have the satisfaction of knowing that the Japanese has been subsequently altered to match my English version. In this case, the cabinetmaker has successfully reshaped a square peg to fit a round hole­ craftsmanship rather than artistry once more.

I am proud to call myself a craftsman, or even a wordsmith, for this kind of work. Fiction, of course, is a different kettle of piranha, but that can wait for another article.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Literary Term You Should Know

Intertextuality: Literary critics comparing different works to one another, especially as they relate to retellings and references, practice intertextuality — as do the writers using the device. Adapting religious or traditional stories remains popular in almost every nation’s canon.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Chapter by Chapter: Ten Self-editing Questions Every Writer Needs to Consider

Chapter by Chapter: Ten Self-editing Questions Every Writer Needs to Consider
by Melinda Copp
Whether you’re working on a narrative or instructional manuscript, self-editing skills are important to your success as a writer. However, many writers don’t know where to start when it comes to looking at their own writing objectively. They can easily skim through for grammar and punctuation errors, but when it comes to the effectiveness of the content and images they create on the page, their own perceptions can be very different from what a reader reads.

Every writer needs an editor, but all writers can use the following ten self-editing questions to think critically and objectively about their own work.

1. Are your chapter titles effective and clear? For instructional works, they should tell readers what’s coming up in the chapter. For creative works, chapter titles can be more creative in their purpose. Still, look at them all to determine how they work together and whether or not they help establish the theme for your narrative.
2. Do your opening sentences hook your readers? This is critical for both narrative and instructional works—grab your readers right away and don’t let them go.

3. Do your introduction paragraphs effectively introduce the content contained in that chapter? For creative works, the first paragraph should set the tone for what’s coming.
4. Are your subheads effective and clear? This obviously applies primarily to how-to nonfiction and instructional works, but creative writers should look at what each chapter title reveals about the chapter it introduces.
5. Do your chapter titles and/or subheads collectively work together to reinforce the theme and goals of the book as a whole?
6. Where do you need more subheads to make the information more manageable for your readers? Again, subheads are primarily for instructional works, but creative writers should look at how their narrative flows and scenes change in each chapter to find where readers may potentially feel lost.
7. Are the examples you use effective in illustrating your points, and reinforcing the theme? For creative writers, does each scene move the narrative forward?
8. Are your main points clear throughout your chapters? For creative writers, is your theme and narrative line clear throughout each chapter?
9. Is the information, or scenes, within each chapter presented to the reader in a logical way?
10. Does each chapter close in such a way that leaves your readers anxious for what comes next? In other words, don’t let them put your book down for long!

Just like every writer needs an editor, every writer needs to learn how to think about their own work objectively—they need to see their own words as a reader will see them. This can be challenging, but it’s definitely not impossible. When you use these ten self-editing questions, you’ll be able to better see the challenges and inconsistencies in your own writing, and your writing project—whether it’s the great American novel or the next bestselling how-to book—will be much better as a result.